Saturday, January 16, 2010

* Echoes of Dante, Gettysburg, and Port au Prince

The horror and chaos and agony in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti this week remind me of the descripton of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg. Three thousand to five thousand horses had been killed and their bloated bodies were set afire on the battlefields to prevent disease.

Three thousand soldiers had been killed in four days. Of the 165,000 who fought, nearly one third (51, 000) were casualties. Screams and moans of agony were heard in the bushes and behind walls as the horse carcasses were cremated. The fetid odor of burning flesh and human death songs echoing from every corner of the battlefield as efforts were made to bury the dead and save the wounded, made the circles of hell imagined by Dante come bubbling up into one dicrete pool of torment and suffering on Pennsylvania fields and orchards while the silent orange daylilies kept their mournful watch at every roadside. And then the rain began, and lasted for days, turning the cinders and smoke of hell into the slime mud and disease of hell as it sent poison toward the waters.

I spent five summers at The Civil War Institute at Gettyburg College. One of the professors there reminds students that when the new library was built on campus ten years ago, bones of soldiers and horses were uncovered in the excavation process.

When I was a kid and Ike was President, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower,digging in her
Gettysburg garden, uncovered the bones of a soldier, later identified as a Confederate. She ordered that a quiet military funeral and his re-interment take place.

If the living hell of the battle of Gettysburg can be subsumed by a century and a half of time-passing and nature-growing, then somehow the devastation of the Haitian earthquake will similarly be subsumed.

A century and a half may be the time it takes for the echoes of its dirges, its agony, to quiet themselves.

For the moment, bless those who relieve the suffering.

Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863:

165,000 soldiers fought. 51,000 causalties. 3000 fatalities. 3000-5000 horses and mules killed.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

* The Academic Industrial Complex (Killing Huck Finn Once and for All)

"It is a rare person who is naturally inclined to sit still for sixteen years in school, and then indefinitely at work, yet with the dismantling of high school shop programs this has become the one-size-fits-all norm, even as we go on about 'diversity' ". (Crawford, p. 73)

Matthew B. Crawford

Matthew Crawford ( Ph.D from the University of Chicago and a motorcycle mechanic), reminds us several times in his brilliant ---alternatingly dense and coarse --- book, of the words of Anaxagoras: "It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals."

He raises the spectre of America becoming a nation of disembodied brains, skilled in reading the social cues of a managerial culture, but divorced from the joy of knowing things empirically from the process of "analyzing" them with our hands.

He does not raise the spectre of a nation which seems to be handing its children's education over to a monolithic Academic Industrial Complex, which devises brain measurements and instruments to test those measurements, instruments which require no more use of the hands than keyboard choreographies.

In his last speech as president, Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the nation in 1961 and warned of the dangers of a Military Industrial Complex, dangers we have seen, and see now, in dubious military proposals for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ike forgot to clean his glasses and see what was else was boiling on the national stove: The Academic Industrial Complex which is about to drain the Huck Finn joy out of American childhood forever.

When I was a child in the 1950's and hung around the livingroom on an afternoon watching TV, my mother would issue her hated but wise command which I can still hear even today: "Go outside and play and don't come back until supper."

There are no such commands being issued in homes or even in the recess-free, obesity-prone school populations today.

Instead, eyes are rivetted to screens, ears to earphones, and hands to keyboards.

And we wash our hands of it as we post the standardized test scores of our standardized children on our standardized refrigerators with our standardized magnets.

". . . all made of ticky tacky . . ."



Friday, November 27, 2009

* Melting on Health Care: My Half-a-Loaf Reversal

Strike It Rich!

After watching the Dr. Oz Houston Free Health Care Clinic on television the day after Thanksgiving I have renounced my opposition to President Obama's health care legislation despite months of publicly opposing it, beginning with my "interview" with Senator Bernard Sanders (Senator Sandbag)on the issue:

Dr. Oz's Houston Free Health Care Clinic saw over 1700 patients in one day, a new national record. Several of those patients he presented today on his program and offered them free surgical help.

I melted.

It reminded me of the early 1950's television program Strike It Rich with Warren Hull (1951-58).

On that program three different contestants would appear and tell their hardship story. At the end of the program a large heart with three windows would register audience applause. The window with greatest applause won the cash award to relieve the contestant's hardship.

Directors of the show would have to take Warren Hull by the arms and walk him around the block after the program to steady him from the ordeal of not only having to listen to the hardships stories, but the agony of having to bait and discard two contestants.

Luckily, Dr. Oz (a creation of Oprah Winprey and her day time talk-show which began featuring him two years ago) did not discard any candidates for help today.

At least, not in front of the cameras.

And even if he is the Oprah conglomerate's mouthpiece to help President Obama sell the urgent need for universal health care in the country, I have no objection. No one should be without health care in the richest country in the world.

Even if I think Obama's health care plan might have killed me a year ago (which I do so think)I have melted after this Dr. Oz presentation. Just grab me by the arms and walk me around the block a couple of times and I'll sign on the dotted line (or my president will).

The most chilling of Dr. Oz's beneficiaries was a 42-year-old man from Texas with an entire lower lip swollen into a black cancerous tumor. Dr. Oz offered him surgery and made him pledge to stop smoking.

Some hard headed, stubborn, independent Yankee types might object to paying for such a person's surgery, saying, "Nobody forced him to smoke."

As someone whose mother and father died at 73 and 78 repectively of smoking related illness (emphysema), I say HOLD ON A MINUTE.

Smoking is an addiction.

And addiction is an illness.

Both of my parents were intelligent and middle class. Both were as addicted to cigarettes as an alcoholic is to alcohol.

(Golden Anniversary Photo: Robert and Barbara Keane, 1983)

We do not punish people for being ill.

The illness is punishment in itself in many cases.

When I think of my mother, fully consccious, unable to get off a ventilator in an Intensive Care Unit for 118 days before she died because her emphysemic lungs were not strong enough for her to breathe on her own, I have no doubt that the illness
is punishment.

Cast my vote FOR health care legislation, no matter how inadequate the legislation may be. Half a Loaf is better than none.

Walk me around the block please.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

* Bring Hell Back (on Steroids)

I don't know who invented Hell AKA eternal damnation. An underworld called Sheol is mentioned in the Old Testament, but no concept of eternal punishment is associated with it.

The New Testament obviously gets the blame for this happy idea. And it is one of the reasons Bertrand Russell rejects Christianity in his essay Why I am Not a Christian. If I recall correctly, he says something like this (only more eloquently): Any religion which introduced the idea of eternal damnation into the world is evil and I cannot subscribe to it.

Well, if he didn't say that, he should have.

Around the time the music of the Beatles began saving the world from hypocrisy (1960), secular American society began ignoring hell until today when no one ---except very old and literal-minded Christians (Ted Kennedy writing the Pope?)--- is actually frightened by hell any more as a real, potential destination on the lower floor of a triple decker universe where evil doers spend eternity being savagely punished.

Or if they do, they believe in it as a place OTHER people are going to wind up in, or as a psychological state in THIS world which can be worked out of by improved behavior AKA contrition and rectitude.

The trouble with the trivialization of hell is that it was a good Skinner Box technique for training socially acceptable behavior. Like an electric shock, the fear of hell would keep others from transgressing too much, at least in personal issues. (Except for Huck Finn who decided to go to hell for lying rather than betray his slave friend Jim. Good choice, Huck!)

Unfortunately, that Skinner Box didn't seem to work in war (the one exception allowed to the "Thou Shalt Not Kill" one-way-trip-to-hell-violation). Read these statistics for the Twentieth Century from a book by one of our former National Security Advisors:

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century (1993)

"Lives deliberately extinguished by politically motivated carnage":

167,000,000 to 175,000,000

War Dead: 87,500,000
Military war dead:
Civilian war dead:

Not-war Dead: 80,000,000
Communist oppression:

Even Abraham Lincoln, in the century prior, cooked up a way to justify the killing he ordered and escape the Skinner-Box of hell: "For every drop of blood from the lash, a drop of blood from the sword." Thus he came to believe that the Civil War deaths of both Union and Confederate soldiers were Providence's way of balancing the scales of divine justice for the evil of slavery.

Who knows. Sounds pretty. But it's rather blood-thirsty of the deity, don't you think?

Dead is dead. And those statistics above are MILLIONS not THOUSANDS.

I say, bring hell back and make it twice as bad and totally inflexible: You kill (or order others to kill): you go to hell and suffer in flaming torture forever.

For Ever.

That would have included Honest Abe, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Eisenhower, Churchill, Kennedy,McNamara, Johnson, Nixon, Bush, and perhaps now, Obama. (Notice they're all males? Maybe we need to give a few more women the power to kill, besides Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

* Hubris Mirror: Benjamin Franklin's and Abraham Lincoln's Turkey Day

A Grace for Yale Divinity School, Thanksgiving, 1976

You can’t say grace
If you don’t feel gratitude.

And in this old land
“I paid for it, so I deserve it”
Is an on-going national attitude.

Sure, we mortals croon
‘Cause we walked on the moon
Minutely divining its latitude.

But till time comes to end
Or there’s no more to spend
There’ll be no real change in our habitude:

The trouble with Grace
Is that new time and space
Is perennially bloating our vanitude.

What we need right now
As we sit down to chow
Is a mirror: To check-out our finitude.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

* "Our long national nightmare . . ." Gerald R. Ford

Ghost of Thanksgiving Past: What We Went Through: 1963-1974

John F. Kennedy
Lee Harvey Oswald
Malcolm X
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Robert F. Kennedy
My Lai
Kent State
Jackson State
Abandoned Presidency

President Nixon resigns, 1974.

Congressional Watergate Investigation, 1973/4

Two students killed, ten wounded by police at Jackson State College, 1970

Four students killed, nine wounded, by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University, 1970

The slaughter of 500 civilians by U. S. troops at My Lai, Viet Nam, 1969

Senator Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated, 1968.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated, 1968.

Malcolm X is murdered, 1964.

Alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is murdered, 1963.

President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, Thanksgiving, 1963.

"Too much happens...Man performs, engenders, so much more than he can or should have to bear. That's how he finds that he can bear anything...That's what's so terrible."

William Faulkner
Light in August

"After the first death there is no other."

Dylan Thomas
A Refusal to Mourn the Death of a Child, by Fire, in London

Denial is the greatest and most salvific of all human faculties. Or, as a more prosaic pundit put it, "Human beings have a built-in forgetter."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

* Cargoon Catharsis: Disney's Puny "Poetics"

Name this actor (_____)


Reginald Owen

Name this actor (______)

Alistair Sim

Jim Carrey

Somehow the Disney Digital Deception, A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey, seems almost silly. Tiny Tim looks like a rubbbery, goony Alfred E. Newman on Carrey's shoulder in this photo, and Carrey's nose makes Cyrano, Shylock, Pinnochio and Scrooge all swim in the same genetic pool. Disney was at his best with fairy tales and myths and cartoons, but this Scrooge and Company are cargoons, not cartoons.

I tried to find the original A Christmas Carol black and white film I watched on television in the 1950's but it seems not to be on Google images or wikipedia. I was looking for that original and most convincing hatchet faced Scrooge to date and couldn't find him. The best I could do is the 1935 Alistair Sim and a later Scrooge who looks like Felix Unger's sloppy roommate or Carl Malden or one of those actors with a torn pocket for a face. Even Patrick Stewart, who managed to turn the towering evil of Melville's Ahab into a baldheaded twit, elicits more respect from me than Disney's digital disaster, at least in the one photo I could find of Stewart as Scrooge.

And there was Lionel Barrymore, about whose Scrooge more need not be said than Barrymore.

What Disney fails to realize, is that our ability to be moved by this curmudgeon's transformation, depends on his being a real human being, not Jim Carrey wrapped in a digital shroud. Even the round-faced Sim or the Carl Malden look-alike version shown above grab me because they could be me.

Disney's Digital Deception just doesn't do it. It lacks the possibility for identification and thus the pity and fear necessary for catharsis.

It's just another silly Disney rubber duckey.

And if there's one thing Dickens is not, it's silly.